This week’s low-profile VOD releases check in on teenagers in Ukraine, American soldiers in World War II Germany, and birds in some kind of hellish dreamscape.
Warhunt (VOD and select theaters January 21): A squadron of American soldiers go on a doomed rescue mission during World War II in this uneven but occasionally effective horror/history hybrid. When an American military plane containing top-secret documents crashes in a dense forest behind enemy lines, Sgt. Brewer (Robert Knepper) and his crew of interchangeable cannon fodder are sent to search for survivors. But the Nazis are the least of their worries once they discover that the forest is the domain of ancient evil witches. With limited locations and sparse special effects, director and co-writer Mauro Borrelli puts together a slick production that punches above its B-movie weight, at least until the murky, drawn-out climax. Sporting a gold eye patch, an ornate cane, and a leather bomber jacket, Mickey Rourke shows up looking like a G.I. Joe character, and gets stuck delivering exposition about mystical secrets; his sluggish performance drags the third act down, killing the pulpy momentum the movie had previously built up. Grade: C+
Stop-Zemlia (VOD and select theaters January 21): Not much happens in this aimless Ukrainian teen drama, but writer-director Kateryna Gornostai creates an appealingly naturalistic portrait of a group of high schoolers. There are typical teenage milestones, including parties, hook-ups, crushes, fights with parents, anxieties about the future, and sexual experimentation, culminating in a big school dance. Gornostai, whose background is in documentaries, intersperses the drama with first-person interviews from the various characters, and those reflections and insights help give the shapeless movie some direction as it meanders past two hours. Although Stop-Zemlia (named after a schoolyard game) has a trio of friends at its core, Gornostai introduces a sprawling supporting cast that can be a bit overwhelming, and the movie often loses its way along detours with tertiary characters. It all adds up to a fuller picture of teenage life, though, and the central trio has a fascinating dynamic as they navigate their changing relationship and discover their place in the world. Grade: B-
Birds Like Us (VOD and DVD January 25): With hideous animation that looks like a Windows XP screensaver, nonsensical fever-dream plotting, and elliptical dialogue that sounds like it was translated back and forth from a foreign language, this seemingly cute family movie about birds on an adventure is guaranteed to traumatize any children inadvertently exposed to it. Somehow Alicia Vikander and Jeremy Irons were lured in to voice the main characters, birds who live in a tree-covered sanctuary called Birdabad. The fascistic Kondor (Irons) demands sacrifices from all the other birds, but swan Huppu (Vikander) envisions a better life. Huppu, Kondor, and Huppu’s owl mate Hassan are accidentally thrust from their home into an outside landscape that may be the post-apocalypse, or a fantasy world, or an unfinished video game prototype. Guided by a bat with a giant prehensile beard, they go on a journey of self-discovery that has the tone of a fable but the structure of a psychotic hallucination. Grade: D
They/Them/Us (Select theaters January 28; VOD February 1): It’s refreshing to see a mainstream-style romantic comedy with such a sex-positive tone, even if its depiction of the BDSM scene can be a little cutesy and clumsy. Joey Slotnick and Amy Hargreaves are charming as a pair of divorced parents who meet on a dating site and attempt to meld their families. Slotnick’s Charlie is an uptight film professor, while Hargreaves’ Lisa is a free-spirited artist who’s deeply involved in the local kink community. The vanilla Charlie’s efforts to open himself up to BDSM are surprisingly sweet and non-judgmental, but They/Them/Us grows unwieldy as it tackles multiple subplots about the couple’s four troubled teenage kids. The movie shifts into melodrama as it focuses on Charlie’s son’s drug problems, and the result is that almost none of the storylines come to satisfying conclusions. Director and co-writer Jon Sherman crams an entire TV season’s worth of plotting into a sporadically funny but tonally frustrating feature film. Grade: C+
Lockdown (VOD and DVD February 1): If this covidsploitation movie (originally titled COVID-19: Invasion) is how writer-director Micah Lyons spent his time in pandemic lockdown, he probably would have been better off learning to bake. Instead, he delivers a thriller filled with massive gaps in logic, confusing character motivations, laughable action sequences, cringe-inducing dialogue, and abysmal production values. Set in 2035, Lockdown posits a world in which COVID-19 has whittled the global population down to 29 million, although that doesn’t seem to affect things like mail delivery or cell phone service. Military veteran Hap (David Ford) faces off against a local militia who’ve decided that the best way to stop the disease from spreading is to kill all the local homeless people, including Hap’s sister. Former WWE star Kevin Nash glowers his way through a handful of scenes, which is appropriate given that most of the characters’ fighting moves seem to have been borrowed from pro wrestling. Grade: D